[from Hall Caine My Story]



THE part that chance plays in human life needs no illustration from my personal experience, but when I remember how unimportant and how remote was the incident which led to my short career as a journalist, and thus to the calling which I have followed during the past five-andtwenty years, I cannot wonder that the blind force we call circumstance, whether working for good or for bad, is often known by a more religious name.

Among the few members of the devoted circle which had surrounded Rossetti was William Bell Scott, a poet and painter, who had never achieved the fame which I thought was his due. To right this wrong it occurred to me one day, while we were at Birchington, to publish an article in his honour, and for reasons I cannot recall I sent it uninvited to the Liverpool Mercury. The article was published in due course, and it led to two very contrary results, the first being that I lost for ever the friendship of Scott, who became for the remainder of his life my bitter enemy; and the second that I received a letter from John Lovell, the then editor of the Mercury, saying, as far as I can remember : " 1 have for some time thought of asking you to join our staff as an outside contributor, and I should be glad to know how you would like some such arrangement as that we should pay you, say, 100 a year, and that you should write for us as much or as little as you please."

It was certainly an extraordinary proposal ; but I think in the sequel it proved both the generosity and the practical wisdom of the man who made it. After the first six months of our informal relation, I received a second letter from the editor, saying : "The proprietors of the Mercury had not anticipated that you would d0 so much for the paper, and therefore they desire to increase the honorarium to 150."

Rather later, a letter of similar purport came to me ; and I need not further deal with this side of my connection with the paper than to say that, on its financial side, it speedily became everything that a young journalist could expect. Towards the end of my Mercury days the business part of our relationship assumed an unusual and rather amusing aspect, which I shall mention in its turn.

Shortly after Rossetti's death I took two rooms (I called them "chambers") in the old, now demolished, Clement's Inn, and there devoted myself to my work as a journalist, which consisted chiefly of my work on the Mercury. If it were necessary to dwell on my domestic life I could, perhaps, tell curious stories of my days in chambers, for, with my income of a hundred a year, I had t0 be my own cook and housemaid (making my own bed and breakfast), as well as my own politician and prophet, regulating for the people of Liverpool some of the affairs of state, and discussing for the world in general the laws of the universe. But it may be enough to say that I was rather poor and very lonely, having few friends in London, hardly any houses to call at, and little to live for, except my family, who were far away, and my work, which was always with me. But these were perhaps not the worst conditions for a young provincial journalist, who, with a fixed income, however small, was allowed the liberty of a free lance. I was to do whatever I liked ; and I did many things in those lonely days which helped me, I think, in later years to some knowledge of life and to a genuine love of humanity.

This was the period when newspapers in London were for the first time becoming aware that there was "news" in a new book; and I did my best to put the Mercury on an equality with the London dailies by giving a review of an important work on the day of its publication ; and that led, by one means after another, to certain literary friendships which have become interesting and valuable to me all my life. Thus at the table of my distinguished friend Watts-Dunton I frequently met Mr. Swinburne ; under the wing of Lord Houghton I met Lord Coleridge ; and at the house of Coleridge I met Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning.

I think these associations helped to stimulate my ambition and to elevate my ideals, if not to promote my material welfare ; and whatever the advantage I derived from them, I owe it, in part or altogether, to my early connection with journalism. For the rest, I can scarcely say if the reading and reviewing of so many modern books was good or bad for me as a novelist, and I sometimes remember with a flush and a shudder, that with even more than the usual daring born of youth and inexperience, I played in my turn the extraordinary part of law-giver and judge in literature while I was still a learner and a tyro. But this topsy-turvydom is apparently a necessary condition of nearly all literary criticism.

The roving commission which Lovell had given me took me to the theatre on first nights, and I suppose I telegraphed to Liverpool a hundred notices of new plays produced in London. In this relation I recall two incidents, equally pleasing and equally fruitful; the first being a letter addressed to my editor by Edward Russell (the best, I think, of all living dramatic critics), saying enthusiastic things of the Mercury dramatic articles, and the second being a letter from Wilson Barrett protesting against one of them, and desiring me to call upon him and explain. The precise ground of Barrett's objection I cannot now remember, but I recall the closing passage of his frank attack, which was something like this : "And now that I've told you what I think of your article, I wish to tell you what I think of yourself. I think you could write a play, and if some day you should hit on a subject suitable to me, I shall be glad if you will let me hear of it."

The theatre was not the only scene in which, under the wing of the Mercury, I studied drama. My editor discovered that at the moment of the unexpected death of a celebrity he was sometimes hard-pressed for an adequate obituary notice, and therefore he resolved to have a good body of such articles prepared and pigeon-holed in advance of the times when they would be required. In this work of preparation my services were engaged, and I wrote numberless obituary notices of people still living, including nearly all the literary friends with whom I used to dine and smoke.

I called these my post-mortem examinations, and, making no secret of them, I sometimes engaged the co-operation of my subjects themselves in preparing the substance of what was to be said about them after their deaths. During the twenty to thirty years which have intervened, the greater part of my post-mortem examinations have been published ; and I trust the readers of the Mercury have at least not been wounded by such ill-timed censure of people newly dead as too often nowadays, under the feeble pretence of impartiality and of holding the scales of justice, disfigures and, I think, disgraces the columns of some leading papers in London.

My post-mortem labours led me to the British Museum for the collecting of my material ; and there, during some six or nine months, I studied, by the way, one of the most curious and pathetic aspects of London life. The reading-room of the great library was in those days an extraordinary scene to one who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Its regular frequenters were a strange conglomeration of people of all nationalities, all interests, and nearly all classes ; but the dominant class was the dreaming class, the Don Quixotes of the human family, creating a world of their own - a world of vision which was tragically out of harmony with the world in which they lived.

The man in the shabby coat and greasy hat, who had been working for ten years on the treatise that was to make him immortal; the exile from Germany or Italy, who had spent half a lifetime in liberating his country and lived meantime in a bare back room in Soho; the fanatics, the cranks, the visionaries-all these were there, and I came to know many of them, and to feel a compassion for their mental and material condition that was sometimes intensely painful. I have often wondered that nobody has used for the purposes of a novel a scene of life so full of varied and pathetic interest as the readingroom of the British Museum.

But, outside my literary and dramatic exercises, there was one wide sphere of literary activity in which I loved to live. My lonely life in London left me to find my few amusements for myself, R and I found them principally in the streets. I was living in the heart of the great city, and though the gardens of the old Clement's Inn gave me an almost cloistral quiet in my rooms, I was living on the edge of one of the poorest quarters in London-the now denuded Clare Market, wherein Richard Savage and Samuel Johnson walked through the long nights of their poverty, when, homeless and without food, they resolved in their patriotic ardour, that come what would, they "could never desert their country."

Genius might not make its home there in my days, but humanity did so ; and I found a world that was valuable to study in the poor people who lived in the wretched rookeries (or say ratteries) which the County Council have since pulled down. The " Old Frenchman " with his Jovian bare head, who sold evening papers in the Strand; the old hatter and the old second-hand bookseller in Clement's Passage ; the poor chorus-girls from the neighbouring theatres, who were treated worse than dogs by creatures worse than men ; the poor little Italian organ-boys, who were bought and sold like slaves ; and then the frequenters of the bogus clubs, of the dancing academies, of the gambling hells-all these were my neighbours, a few of them were my friends, and most of them found their way in some sort of disguise into the columns of my paper.

It was not a bad apprenticeship for a novelist to live amid associates and scenes like these ; but I think I can say with truth that what I prize most, as the result of the experience of those days, is the tenderness it left for the poor and the oppressed, especially the oppressed among women and girls, whose suffering utters a cry which even yet threatens to drown for me all the other sounds of life.

When I was in Iceland four years ago, I was interested to hear from a young poet that Parliament had granted him a stipend to travel abroad and develop his talent. Something like that was what the Mercury did for me when it gave me for several years at least a living wage on condition that I reported myself every day. It afforded me a magnificent apprenticeship to the profession of novelist, and it is my own fault if adequate results have not ensued. It sent me to the University of Life-the University of the London streets, the London police-courts, the London drinking and dancing and gaming halls and general underground resorts ; and I should have had to be a poor apprentice indeed to come through its curriculum without some knowledge of the world.

I am now fifty-five years of age, and have had thirty years' experience of the literary life, and if a beginner were to ask me what school I consider best for the novelist, I should answer without hesitation, the school of journalism.

The imaginative writer needs invention and sympathy, and these are the gifts of nature ; but whatever the deftness of the workman's hand, he cannot " make bricks without straw," and the life of one man is hardly ever so full of incident as to find material for many books. But the school of journalism is constantly crowding the brain of the student with the incidents of countless lives ; and, speaking for myself, I know that in those hours of mingled agony and delight, in which the scheme of a novel is being composed, there come swarming in upon me at every turn of the plot the recollections of my days as a journalist-recollections of this face or of that voice-of the pathetic figure of the blind mother who had never seen her babe, or of the wistful eyes of the condemned man when he looked at me as he mounted the scaffold. But journalism, to be the best school for the novelist, must be the journalism of the police-court, the divorce-court, the hospital, and the jail, where human nature is real and stark, if vulgar and low-not the journalism of "society," where humanity is trying its poor best to wear a mask.


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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018